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Uber-Manc: Can The Car Hire App Really Change A City?

According to the car sharing app's Northern boss, Uber can transform Manchester. Innovative partnerships with landlords and developers will unlock land and change geographies, whilst big data can unblock transport nodes.

The theory applies not just to Manchester, but to any city in the world. The ambition is grand, the potential for change huge. But how will it work in practice? Uber's head of Northern Cities, Neil McGonigle, explained to Bisnow how tie-ups with the property sector are at the heart of its radical strategy.

Uber car sharing taxi app

Hiring a car is hardly a new idea. Taxis have been plying for trade in Manchester since the 1840s, and minicabs have flourished in the 20 years since full city council licensing began. So the arrival of Uber — the Silicon Valley-based car sharing app that debuted in Manchester in March 2014 — should hardly matter. Agreed?

But fresh from a bruising dispute with transport regulators in several global cities — including London — and amidst growing concern that taxi apps are clogging city streets, Uber is now anxious to show that it is more than just a headache. Rather, it wants to be a way to change urban geography, and it is a message particularly directed to the property sector.

Uber have already trialled an innovative arrangement with developers Moda Living on their £128M Angel Gardens development, Manchester. Uber says it is talking to more residential and commercial developers about similar tie-ups.

“This is about how we can work with developers and local councils to encourage people to realise they don’t need to own a private car," Uber Head of Northern Cities Neil McGonigle said. "It’s about tackling air quality issues but also making better use of urban land, because developers simply don’t need as much land to build parking for cars that lie idle for the vast majority of the time.”

Developers Love Uber?

Manchester apartment partnership between Uber and Moda Living

The rationale for Uber's claim to be able to translate changes in minicab habits into new Manchester property opportunities is the belief that Manchester's city-centre users do not want cars. Or at least, not as much as they did.

“Less car parking means more space for residential, retail, other amenities like gyms, pools, cinema rooms," McGonigle said. "Moda is bringing this kind of thinking to the U.K., as developers increasingly realise that new generations of prospective tenants — the Millennials, Generation Y — simply don't have the same aspiration and requirements for personal car ownership and value other aspects of an urban lifestyle."

Change in sentiment means a change in the use of physical space: in short, less square footage wasted on car parking.

"That space that would otherwise be dedicated to car parking can thus be repurposed for other uses, be they revenue generating for the developer or other amenities that prospective tenants are likely to value more," McGonigle said.

The arrangement with Moda — which McGonigle said may or may not be typical of further deals — is based on a memorandum of understanding. Landlords give vouchers to residents, who spend them in Uber cars. For the landlord the upside is happier tenants who do not need parking spaces, freeing up the land for other users. For Uber the upside is acquiring new customers and increasing useage from existing customers.

“We’re having discussions, and not just with residential developers but with commercial landlords, sports venues, all kinds of property. We’re pursuing a broad range of partnerships, both within the transport industry and beyond, aimed at encouraging people away from private car ownership and use,” McGonigle said.

Big Data Means Big Wins?

Manchester metrolink tram at Market Street stop
Manchester's trams at Market Street

Uber say their influence will not be limited to deals with landlords. This is because they possess something of great interest to both property people and traffic regulators. That something is data.

In March Uber launched Uber Movement in London, taking advantage of the millions of GPS-tracked journeys taken by their drivers.

Until now only Uber has been able to use that information, but from this month they are making the aggregated and anonymised data available to help urban planners make decisions about their city.

For the first time in London, anybody will be able to compare past travel conditions across different times of day, days of the week or months of the year. The tool also allows people to see how journey times in different parts of the city are impacted by things like major events, road closures or infrastructure investment.

This is only the first step for Uber Movement in the U.K. Over the next few months Uber plan to launch it in other cities including Manchester and Birmingham.

Combine this data with existing public transport data sets — trams, trains, buses — and you have a powerful analysis of city movements and patterns of a kind that advocates of digitally enabled Smart Cities have long wished for.

"Uber in isolation cannot influence strategic decision-making on where people work or spend their leisure time, that requires a much broader approach across multiple stakeholders," McGonigle said. "What we can do is help ensure certain parts of a city aren't discriminated against in terms of lack of access to public transport or poor reliability of other transport options.

"We can help fill in those gaps, which is important as we know there are strong correlations between access to reliable, affordable transport and the social and economic opportunities that are available to people."

Can this really change the geography of cities? Maybe. There are city-fringe locations which, even in today's well-connected Manchester, remain remarkably cut off. The more distant reaches of Ancoats, Ardwick, New Cross and Miles Platting could all benefit. Yet, as Uber's McGonigle insists, the car sharing app cannot do this alone: the public sector will have to take the lead.

"Longer term, changing the way people move about cities could have an impact in terms of the feasibility of  certain areas for development — again though this won't be down to Uber in isolation but through a range of partners working together, both public and private," McGonigle said.

Join Neil McGonigle and Bisnow for the Manchester State of the Market event on 15 May at 7.30am at No. 1 Spinningfields by registering here.